By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
There were practical reasons for Jena‘s wanting to become emancipated. She’d gain access to her trusts. Jena had earned close to a million dollars at this point, which meant that, under the Coogan Law, she should have had around $250,000 in various trusts. (Less than 30 percent, because some productions had not been subject to depositing money into a trust, a loophole the Revised Coogan Law closed.) Jena told her mother that, if she‘d agree to sign the emancipation papers, Jena would use her trusts to pay off the taxes. Debbie agreed, and in June 1999 signed Jena’s petition for emancipation.
“She was the one that came up with this,” says Debbie. “She said, ‘Mom, emancipate me, I will take the money out of my trust, pay off the back taxes, and we will get current.’ And then she said, ‘On top of that, I will be able to work more.’”
Jena needed to work, because Debbie had no intention of doing so. “When Madison was three weeks old and Jena was doing Stepmom, she turned to me -- three-week-old baby -- she turned to me and she said, ‘You need to go get a job.’ And I looked at her and said, ‘Honey, you don’t know what you‘re saying. First of all, I cannot go get a new job, I just had a baby. I told you this. I sat down and I told you, I need to be with Madison for at least six months to a year, so that she has a firm beginning.’”
Jena maintains that she did not mind supporting her family. “It was never a problem when I was doing really good work, and I had enough money to support everyone,” she says. “But when it became not enough money, and I kind of had to keep working to just make money, that‘s when it didn’t work out.”
Propelled by Debbie‘s desperation -- as she often reminded Jena, she was on the verge of personal bankruptcy -- Jena took jobs she did not want, including appearances on Homicide and Touched by an Angel. (“If those could be burned and never seen again,” she says, “I would feel so much better.”)
Debbie chose not to accompany Jena on these shoots, staying instead in New York. To get around the requirement of being on the set, she paid Lesley Brander to act as Jena’s guardian. Brander says that, during this time, Debbie phoned daily, not to speak to Jena, but to complain about finances.
“My whole thing was, ‘Debbie, if you want to have a relationship with your daughter, you have got to get the money out of the middle, because if your daughter doesn’t believe it‘s about love, then what’s the point?‘” says Brander. “Debbie has major control issues. When I spoke to her about just being a mom, she’d say, ‘No, you have to take control of the child, of the money, of the production, of the scripts.’ I‘d say, ’What about just being a mom?‘ It was a question that didn’t compute.”
Debbie assumed that her role as mother was immutable, a steel-trap sort of logic that goes: I am the parent, I make the decisions. But she hadn‘t been making the decisions, not for a long time.
“She wanted so much to be part of my business life, and I just kind of wanted her to be my mom, but it was hard for her to see where the line ended and where the line began,” says Jena. “Without knowing it, I think she gave up her right as a mother.”
In July 1999, with the emancipation papers signed, though not yet processed, Jena and Lesley Brander left for Utah, where Jena would be starring with Glenn Close in the CBS TV movie The Ballad of Lucy Whipple. It meant a month away from Debbie.
Or so Jena thought. A week into shooting, Debbie showed up with Madison in tow, and a big white tooth pinned to her blouse.
“She was selling dental insurance,” says Brander. “First of all, the tooth is like the funniest thing you want to see, and it’s embarrassing. You‘re [a teenager], you don’t want your mom on the set anyway, and now she‘s coming to sell dental insurance with a big white tooth . . . Jena asked her mom, ’Please, I‘m begging you, do not go on the set . . . it’s embarrassing.‘ Debbie would not hear of it. She was like, ’I have a business, you cannot tell me where I can sell or who I can sell to, I don‘t care if you’re embarrassed, I‘m gonna do it.’”
“She never really understood how that kind of jeopardizes what you‘re doing on the set,” says Jena.
Debbie says she went to Utah because it was her place to be with her daughter, that she only hired Brander because she had her hands full with Madison. When asked why she didn’t simply get a baby-sitter, Debbie clouds over.
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